Nontando celebrates 10 years of direct importing of African Décor, Art and Gifts

Annual buying trips to Africa for the past 10 years have enabled Nontando to establish many relationships across the continent of Africa. However, even with the numerous challenges of direct importing from overseas, the benefits are clear to be seen and have been the cornerstone behind the business successes over the past decade.

“I would not do it any other way”, says Gary Stern, owner and founder of Nontando. Stern emphasizes that his strategy from inception was to continuously improve the supply chain management process coupled an effort to cut costs in the process.  Stern says, “Direct importing has its challenges but when you can seek out higher quality products at better prices and deal directly with the artists then the ripple effect is a big positive”. “A global recession together with a prolonged challenging economic environment has of course had an impact on discretionary spending, hence bringing quality products at affordable prices has been of paramount importance at Nontando. Stern continues, “Direct importing gives us a comparative advantage with lower priced goods which allows us to eliminate the need for middlemen thus bringing our products to the consumer at better prices”.

Stern explains how every region has its strengths and weaknesses, good quality and poor quality and being able to identify and maintain viable sources is critical with regard to importing. “We pride ourselves that our products are 100% authentic and hand selected”, says Stern. Nontando normally takes 3 weeks each year and goes shopping in Africa travelling across many regions and meeting with their sources. “We try and do as much pre planning as possible before our buying trips but almost 50% of our selected and imported products are acquired ad-hoc during our trips”, Stern continues,” Through our online presence we are working with a number of designers and decorators across the USA and many of them are seeking that unusual, unique product. Our trips enable us to seek these products out”.

For certain product lines, uniqueness is critical and it can be somewhat trial and error process.   “Experience through our buying trips has taught us so much about the varied regions and peoples of Africa and just like anywhere in the world, artists from different demographics tend to specialize in particular mediums and categories”, Stern says. He explains in Africa many of the traditional skills have been carried on for generations in some cultures.

Nontando is a huge believer and supporter of working with the local artist and suppliers, thus encouraging empowerment and entrepreneurship. “Government intervention has definitely improved over the years but there is still a lot of work to be done here”, Stern says. “Trade agreements in recent years have been encouraging promoting free trade and less government intervention”. Nontando wants to see the small, local artist given the same opportunities to reach the global markets”. Stern says, “This would create a win-win scenario as well as serve as a boost for local economies”.

Nontando completes another African buying Trip, an exercise in more than just African Art

Since its inception in 2003, “finding unique products at prices that our customers can afford” has been the driving force behind Nontando’s annual buying trips to the continent of Africa. 

Gary Stern, owner of Nontando, explains, “Our online and retail customers see the final product, yet our buying trips are about so much more than product, trade and transaction”. Stern explains, “For many of the folks I deal with in Africa, especially the artists, communication and the means thereof, is something very new”. “For many years”, Stern continues, “Many of the folks we deal with in Africa, had very limited ability to communicate in the past due to the lack of technology and other resources.” Stern continues, “This is starting to change, which really helps with the planning and organization of our buying trips”. “Technology is more accessible, more affordable and folks in Africa are becoming more comfortable and knowledgeable and see the benefits in their day to day lives”. On his most recent buying trip in August 2012, gave one his suppliers from Cameroon a digital camera. “He now has a wonderful opportunity to showcase his products internationally and he is seeing the potential for him to reach a global audience”, Stern explains.

“Every year I go back I try and instill the importance of establishing partnerships and building contacts. The artists that have created business relationships internationally have quickly recognized the benefits and potential”, Stern says.

“For me, my buying trips are about so much more than product. Building relationships was and still is paramount”, Stern explains. Stern and Nontando do not measure their buying trip successes on products alone. “Establishing and building relationships for the long term is so important”, explains Stern.

Buying trips can be very challenging but the pros outweigh the cons every time. Getting that cultural and geographic taste and experience, and gaining the in-depth firsthand product knowledge of the items you are bringing back – nothing can replace this!

“Time is limited and logistics can be a challenge,” says Stern.

Nontando normally goes for a period of 3 weeks to African annually and travel to different regions each year. Because of this, preplanning and communication is critical. Stern continues, “I have yet to go on a buying trip were I have not had to make some rapid decisions on a couple of surprises,” he explains.

Some of these surprises can be of a positive nature. Often, I will cross paths with an artist and/or a product that I had not planned for. Product uniqueness has and is a vital component of Nontando’s buying and product strategy and for Stern, it is so personally rewarding when he fortuitously comes upon these opportunities. “Regardless that you may travel with a plan the ability to make decisions on the fly is critical,” explains Stern.

Quality

Depending on the type of product being sourced, and the region it’s being sourced from, the ability to assess the quality is of paramount importance. Stern says, “Selecting and handpicking each of our products is a vital component to our buying trips. Over the past 10 years I have heard many stories from customers that had acquired products from other businesses and also on their own personal travel only to be disappointed with the quality of the item”, Stern says.

“Doing this for over 10 years now has giving us this experience and knowledge to be able to sort the good product from the bad product, avoiding the potential to get ripped off”, Stern says. “We pride ourselves on quality and authenticity and our buying trips is the main cause in achieving this”, Stern says.

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Nontando brings you the best of Shona Stone Carvings from Zimbabwe

Since its inception in 2003, Nontando has been offering a wide selection of Shona Stone Carvings from Zimbabwe to its customers. For the past 10 years, on their annual buying trips to Africa, Nontando has been hand selecting a wide array of stone carvings from individual artists. “ We have focused on selecting and acquiring a diverse selection of carvings” says Gary Stern, owner of Nontando. Stern continues, “The stone carvings are handmade by members of the Shona, Lemba and SAN tribes from Southern Africa and each stone caving typically reflect the artist’s vision of his/her culture and traditions”. Nontando has one of the largest collections you will find anywhere and their carvings are made from a number of types of stone, including Serpentine, Springstone, Soapstone and Verdite. Stern continues, “No two pieces are the same. Once this beautiful natural stone is sculpted and imbued with the values and feelings of the artisan, it is carefully polished to produce a piece of beauty for all art lovers to cherish. The excavation of the raw quarry stone, the carving work and polishing is all done manually”.

All of Nontando’s Shona Stone Carvings are directly sourced from Zimbabwe, a Southern African country whose name literally means “the house of stone,” and are known for its remarkable stone sculptors. Some Shona sculptors are considered to be among the top sculptors in the world.

From modern abstract art to traditional tribal carvings to stunning replicas of African wildlife, Shona sculptures and  Zimbabwe artists are garnering worldwide attention and respect. In fact, internationally acclaimed Shona stone sculptures adorn the homes, gardens and offices of both admirers and discerning art collectors alike. Magnificent Shona art statues are also revered in fine galleries and museums around the globe, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Musee Rodin in Paris.

“One thing we have noticed in dealing with Shona Art is the incredible diversity of the style and design of the carvings. The Shona sculptors’ work is inspired by their deeply-held spiritual beliefs, folklore and daily life”, Stern says.

Shona Art has also inspired many western artists. It is believed that Pablo Picasso may have been influenced by this art form. While modern in inspiration, their sculptures are created much as they were thousands of years ago. The sculptors use simple chisels to “release” the spirits of the stone. As the late Henry Munyaradzi, one of the most prominent sculptors explained, “The sculpture is already hidden in the stone-I just it let out.”

Stern says, “It is an extraordinary art form that is still very reasonable in price. We have managed to collect a few thousand pieces over the years and can now offer our customers a wonderful, wide array of choices for those seeking a small gift or a piece of home décor”. Stern continues, “To think you can visit our store and purchase an everlasting, completely unique and handmade carving as a wedding or anniversary gift representing lovers or a couple for as low as $20 is remarkable”.

Nontando has supported this art form for more than 12 years through its purchases of sculpture by Zimbabwean artists. “Buying our carvings directly from the artists allow us to offer them at reasonable prices, and enable the artists to continue their artistic endeavors. Due to the political climate in Zimbabwe, and subsequent severe downturn in foreign tourists, there are fewer available avenues for artists to find a market for their work”, Stern says.

Stern concludes,” These artists have a special gift and these Shona stone sculptures are an expression of the soul”.

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To view Nontando’s collection of Shona Stone Carvings from Zimbabwe please visit http://www.nontando.com or our store at 6578 Gateway Avenue, Sarasota, FL, 34231